Four Hundred Years Ago: The Birth of a ‘New England’ – Trans-Atlantic Separatists & the Language of Dissent.

‘The Ship they called the Mayflower‘:

The 16th September 2020 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the departure of the ship, Mayflower, from Plymouth Sound in Devon, England. The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ were drawn from the Puritan separatists who had set up illegal churches in Lincolnshire and other parts of East Anglia. Threatened with fines and/or imprisonment, some had fled to Holland, setting up churches in Amsterdam and Leyden, but then decided to reunite their English churches by setting up a religious ‘plantation’ or colony in America. The Mayflower left Delftshaven in July 1620, the saints being joined by prospective settlers from England at Southampton in August, where the Speedwell, the smaller accompanying ship, already leaking, had to be repaired. The two ships left Southampton on 5 August but had to put into Dartmouth in Devon for further repairs. On the second attempt, they sailed about 350 miles beyond Land’s End, before Speedwell again started taking on water. The ships returned to Dartmouth, and most of the separatists decided to go on to the New World on Mayflower alone, finally leaving Plymouth on 6 September. Of the 120 combined passengers, 102 were chosen to travel on the Mayflower with the supplies consolidated. Of these, about half had come by way of Leyden, and about 28 of the adults were members of the congregation. The reduced party finally sailed successfully on September 6 (old calendar)/September 16 (new), 1620.

A diagram of the Mayflower. It was in the first and second holds that the passengers lived, ate, and slept during the three-month voyage. In the twenty years that followed the voyage of the ship, some twenty thousand colonists from the British Isles settled in New England, as they called it, having crossed the Atlantic on ships of a similar size.

The Elizabethan puritans had wanted to reform the church from within, to make it more like Jean Calvin‘s church in Geneva, as part of a ‘Corpus Christianum’, a Christian state. They simply wanted to purify the national church from all the ceremonial remnants, vestiges and vestments of Roman Catholicism. They also questioned whether there was any biblical basis for the authority of bishops over the Church. Some wanted to replace them with a system of elders and synods, with stricter discipline. This became known as Presbyterianism. Elizabeth I resisted these changes and James I hated Presbyterians, threatening to ‘harry them out of the land.’ His problems with the English puritans were as nothing compared with what he had suffered from the ‘high’ Calvinists in his native Scotland. The leading role of the laity and James’ long minority had resulted in the establishment of a predominantly Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland, with no royal supremacy comparable to that which existed in Tudor England.

The high tide of Scottish Calvinism began to flow in 1574, when the famous scholar Andrew Melville returned from Geneva to assume the the headship of the University of Glasgow. He revived both Glasgow and St Andrews, but also fought to make the Kirk totally Presbyterian throughout the final decades of the sixteenth century and, perhaps most importantly, to make it independent of the Crown. Eventually, in 1606, Melville was summoned to London, where his invective against the Anglican forms of worship and, in particular, Archbishop Bancroft’s ‘Romish Rags’ so incenced the privy councillors that it committed him to the Tower, where he stayed for five years before being banished to France for the rest of his life. After this, James gradually restored both the crown and the bishops to considerable authority within the Kirk, but though, by 1621, he had forced it to accept the observance of the great Christian festivals and various other ‘Anglican’ practices, faced by open rebellion, he abandoned his plan to introduce a Scottish Prayer Book, based on the English Book of Common Prayer. To build on his success, it was important to avoid alienating the clergy, the nobles and the lairds all at the same time, giving them common cause to rebel. Where James had succeeded, however, Charles was to fail catastrophically.

In England, meanwhile, while many Calvinists compromised uneasily within the state Church, others eventually left of their own accord, more radical groups of ‘separatists’ growing up in parallel to the main puritan group. The separatists had first attracted the the attention of the authorities in the 1580s. They had formed their own independent congregation at Norwich in 1581, withdrawing completely from the Church, which they believed to be so polluted it could not be cleansed from within. However, in Elizabethan England it was illegal not to attend the national church and to form separate church congregations. The ‘sectaries’ or separatists, sometimes called ‘Brownists’ after one of their early leaders, incurred the heavy displeasure of church and state alike, though ‘mainstream’ puritans within the established church felt no need to consider leaving England, since they felt tolerably at home within the established church. But then an Act against Seditious Sectaries was passed, giving those who persisted in attending ‘conventicles’ the choice between death or banishment. In 1593 three of their pastors were executed for sedition.

Despite this, early in the seventeenth century, separatists set up further illegal churches in Scrooby and Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. The government of their chapel was based on a ‘covenant’, marking the beginning of the ‘Congregationalist’ movement. They were threatened with fines and imprisonments if they did not conform with the Church of England. Some of them, in 1608, fled to Holland to escape from persecution by the authorities, setting up churches in Amsterdam and later in Leyden. The Dutch were tolerant of religious nonconformity and allowed the English independents refugee status and freedom of worship. However, life in the Netherlands was far from easy for the exiles. They stayed briefly in Amsterdam and then moved to the city of Leyden where they remained for the next twelve years. Even so, they remained impoverished, most of them working in the depressed cloth trades. Others worked as printers, carpenters and tailors. Even children had to work all day, and had little time for education. Parents felt shut off and feared that their that their children would lose their language and identity as English people, so they decided to move again, this time to somewhere they could farm the land and maintain both their religious and cultural identities. In order to make a new start, both spiritually and materially, the groups in both England and Holland determined to cross the Atlantic and found a colony in the New World. It was from Leyden that one of these groups emigrated to New England, via Plymouth, in 1620. In July of that year they sailed in the Speedwell from Delftshaven to rendezvous with the English congregationalists in Southampton and Dartmouth before setting off for the New World.

The English General Baptists had their beginnings in 1608, when John Smyth, being convinced that no surviving church possessed the true ordinances, baptised first himself and then the rest of his congregation. But separatists remained few, and most of them went into exile, to Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, rather than face the harsh penalties that threatened them at home. The second-stage migration of the Mayflower ‘Pilgrims’ from Leyden was a response to the economic conditions in the Netherlands, and therefore different from the migrations with mixed motivations of the 1630s. The persecutions worsened after Charles I came to the throne and Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, as the evidence below confirms.

By the time the ‘Pilgrim’ congregationalists left the Netherlands, other groups had already returned to England, led by Thomas Helwys, who had founded the first openly ‘Baptist’ church in London. Helwys’ group formed the first General or Arminian Baptist Congregation in England at Spitalfields in 1612. Arminianism was a rejection of Calvinist ideas of predestination and ‘God’s Elect’, and the belief that God’s grace is available to all. They practised believers’ baptism as a sign of this.  By 1638, there were also Calvinists in London who practised believers’ baptism, and these became known as ‘Particular Baptists‘. They had grown out of the first independent congregations in the capital, and their understanding of the church as a gathered community led to them professing that only the baptism of believers fitted such a view. Helwys’ group had been much influenced by the Dutch Mennonites, but both the General and Particular Baptist churches developed out of a conscientious search for the true pattern of the ‘apostolic church’ of the New Testament and the first century.

Seafarers, Strangers and Pilgrims:

The English congregational emigrants were not alone in deciding to leave either Holland and England to establish a farming village in the New World. Their intention, like many others, was to establish a farming village in the northern part of the Virginia Colony. At that time, Virginia effectively extended from Jamestown in the south to to the mouth of the Hudson River in the north, and the would-be emigrants planned to settle near where New York City is located today. The congregation purchased a small ship, the Speedwell, to transport them across the sea and to use for fishing and trading along the Atlantic shore.

The story of what was to become the first North American settlements by Europeans had begun in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under charter from Elizabeth I, claimed Newfoundland for England (my Hungarian readers may be interested in the fact that one of his fellow explorers was a Hungarian historian and poet István Parmenius of Buda). Most of the early settlers there were not English, however, but Gaelic-speaking fishermen and indentured servants from Ireland. To this day, Newfoundland English is a distinct variant of North American English. Heading South, Gilbert was then drowned in a storm with the famous last words, We are as neer to heaven by sea as by land. Sir Walter Raleigh took up the cause of founding a new colony, temporarily establishing the Cittie of Ralegh in Virginea, on today’s coast of North Carolina. The story of The Lost Colony, as it became known, and of Pocahontas, exemplifies the adventurous mariners of the Jacobean era but also shows how hazardous and difficult the settlement of the New World was. The first group began the colony of Jamestown in 1607, hoping to find gold there. But they had very little food, and many of them died during the first winter.

Raleigh, now out of favour with the Crown, continued to express his undying faith in an English empire overseas. With hindsight, the colonisation of the new huge land-mass of North America by English-speaking settlers seems inevitable and Ralegh’s boast to Sir Robert Cecil in 1602, that he would yet live to see it an English Nation might not seem so idle, had he been allowed to live on. However, at the time neither Raleigh nor the prospective settlers could envisage what they were taking on, let alone confront the harsh realities of the new frontier on the other side of the ocean. The hazards of extremes of climate and the difficulties of transforming wild country into good farming land were often underestimated by would-be ‘planters’. Many expeditions were destroyed by natives and even after James I came to the English throne in 1603, there was news that a colony of fifteen hundred settlers had been wiped out. But the Jamestown settlers stopped looking for gold and started growing tobacco instead, which they sold in Europe where smoking was becoming fashionable, and the colony survived. It then began to thrive when slaves were brought from Africa to expand the plantations, better able to withstand the sub-tropical climate. In the early seventeenth century, it was not just the British and Irish who came to live in North America: the French in Quebec and the Dutch in New York had also begun major settlements. In the meantime, raiding and trading, including slave-trading, was continuing to prove far more lucrative for the English ‘privateers’ and adventurers.

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Dutch slave-traders in the early seventeenth century and their African human ‘cargo’

By contrast, the ‘pilgrims’, as they became known only after the War of Independence, were English patriots who thought of their new territory as New England. Although they were determined to maintain their independence from the state church in England, as ‘secularists’ they were loyal to the English Crown and received permission and funding from it to found a new colony in the New World. As already mentioned, they had originally intended to settle close to the Virginian colonists, but sailed off course and landed further north in what is now Cape Cod Bay, in the state of Massachusetts. On 21 December, they arrived at an abandoned Indian village where they settled, re-naming it Plymouth. Their allegiance was still very much to their mother country and they had no intention of founding a new nation. The territory is now called by the Amerindian name of Massachusetts, though it is still referred to as New England. The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation. As he finished recounting his group’s July 1620 departure from Leyden, he used the imagery of Hebrews 11: 13-16 about Old Testament “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country:

So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Weir a c...
Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Weir a copy is also located in the, United States Capitol rotunda, Washington, DC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, except when quoting him. The Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used his word pilgrims. At Plymouth’s Forefathers’ Day observance in 1793, Rev. Chandler Robbins recited this passage. The Mayflower emigrants themselves and their contemporaries never referred to themselves as ‘pilgrims’, a word which was only popularised in ‘old’ England after the publication of Bunyan’s famous work from the 1680s. They may have used the word ‘saints’ and it may have been used by further settlers to distinguish between themselves and the ‘separatists’ or ‘dissenters’. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that they regarded themselves as ‘fathers’ or ‘founders’ of a new earthly ‘nation’, an action which would have seemed and been seen as treasonous at the time. Again, the scant contemporary evidence is drawn from Bradford’s later history of the Massachusetts colony, which confirms the strong sense of patriotism in one of the finest and earliest examples of prose written in America:

But may not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say – Our Fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in the wilderness, but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice and looked on their adversities.

Colonial expansion in America & the Caribbean to 1707. Roanoke was England’s first colony in the Americas (1584-90). It failed, in part because of the war between England and Spain which made sailings by support expeditions impossible. The settlers were evacuated and resettled once, but when a relief ship arrived in 1590 it found no trace of them. A number of early settlements suffered similarly through inadequate supplies. Colonies were established along the North American coast, some by those seeking to escape religious persecution. Many who moved to the West Indies hoped for quick wealth through raiding Spanish America as privateers. Others became involved in the highly profitable slave plantation economy that also developed along the coast of North America. Large-scale emigration and the volume of settlers crossing the Atlantic led to the growth of empire.

Escaping Persecution & Looking for a True England:

In his address on BBC RADIO 4’s SUNDAY WORSHIP PROGRAMME, 13/09/2020 (available to listen to via the BBC web-site/ ‘BBC Sounds’), Stephen Tomkins has pointed out that it’s often said that the Mayflower pilgrims sailed to North America to escape religious persecution. It’s true that many members of their Separatist movement had suffered imprisonment and death in England for their faith. But after three of their leaders were executed in 1593, the Separatists took refuge in Leyden in the Netherlands, and there they enjoyed religious toleration for twenty-seven years before the Mayflower sailed. So, if they no longer needed to escape persecution, why did they take the dreadfully dangerous course of migrating to North America? They went because of a familiar Bible story from the book of Exodus:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

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Embarking the Mayflower in Plymouth, 16 September 1620. Getty Images, after a famous painting by Arthur Cope which illustrates the scene as a group of ‘Pilgrims’ are pushed offshore in a small boat, taking them to the ship.

In the book of Exodus, God’s people, the children of Israel, are slaves in Egypt. It’s the land of their birth, but a godless place of oppression, where they are subjected to cruelty and violence, by an unholy regime. So, in the story of the Exodus, God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, across the sea, to the promised land, where they will be free and prosper:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians.

Map showing the orginal locations of the main group of Separatists in England & the Netherlands during the decades before their departure to the New World.

The Separatists believed that they were the people of God in their own day, just as the Israelites were in the Bible. They were suffering in the same way – England was the new Egypt. And so they believed that God was leading them out of that land of chains and blood, across the sea to freedom, in the Netherlands. The problem was that the Netherlands did not turn out to be much of a promised land. They enjoyed religious freedom there, but they lived in poverty, they suffered splits and scandals, life was hard, their numbers declined. What did these struggles mean? They looked again at the story of the Exodus and remembered that after God led Israel out of Egypt they had wandered for many years in the wilderness – a time of testing – before the Lord led them again, through the waters of the Jordan, finally, into the promised land. So the Separatists concluded that, following the same pattern, they too had another journey to make before they reached the place to which God was calling them.

The Puritans’ Tangled Motivations for Migration:

Many, perhaps most, of the Mayflower migrants were Puritan dissenters, or separatists, who would not conform with the liturgy and practices of the Church of England, and their story became the story of American English. Their motives were a tangle of idealistic, colonising, self-interested and religious ambitions. The Pilgrim Fathers went to escape, in the words of Andrew Marvell, the Prelate’s Rage. They were also escaping from a monarch of Great Britain who hated both Scottish Presbyterians and English Independents among his subjects, vowing to harry them out of the land. But neither of these groups declared themselves as opponents of monarchy, which they saw as the legitimate instrument of secular authority. This was twenty years before the civil wars broke out, first in Scotland, and then in England. But though they may well have believed in the ‘Divine Right’ of King James to be God’s annointed magistrate over secular, ‘temporal’ matters, they certainly did not accept the right of any monarch to rule over matters of religion and conscience. Their impulse to migrate was therefore, simultaneously, both profoundly conservative and revolutionary, in religious terms at least. They hoped to find an austere wilderness where they could establish an authentically English Christian community. They did not see themselves as abandoning their East Anglian identity, but rather purifying and transplanting it. They did not see themselves as creating a new country, America, but rather as recreating the old country, free from what they felt were the papist poisons prevalent in the national church.

At Southampton, the Leyden congregation on the Speedwell was joined by the other English congregations and the Mayflower. The two ships departed for England together, but twice had to return to port, first at Dartmouth and then Plymouth, because the Speedwell kept leaking due to having been re-fitted with too large a mast. Finally, the Mayflower left Plymouth alone on 16 September, with 102 passengers. When the Mayflower set sail, the largest group on board came from East Anglia, but they represented thirty different communities from all over England. These can still be seen in the place-names of New England… Boston, Bedford, Braintree, Cambridge, Lincoln and Yarmouth. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were some already a quarter of a million colonists on the North-Eastern seaboard of North America, mainly from London and the eastern counties. 

"The Landing of the Pilgrims."(1877)...
“The Landing of the Pilgrims.”(1877) by Henry A. Bacon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sixty-six days spent on board the Mayflower was far from comfortable, as the cross-section diagram above suggests. The ship was originally built as a cargo ship and under the deck the ceiling was so low that the adults, including the women, could not stand up straight. Due to the roughness of the crossing and the risk of fire, they were unable to cook. They had no livestock in any case, so food was very basic. Drinking water was unsafe, so everyone, including the children, drank ‘ale’ or ‘small beer’ as the chief means of hydration. Sanitation consisted of slop-buckets, and there was no running water for bathing. Many of the passengers suffered seasickness for much of the journey and sleeping facilities were either improvised bunks or hammocks. Each of the families brought only one chest for clothes, weapons and tools for cooking, building and gardening. There was one baby born on board; its parents named it ‘Oceanus’. During the voyage, one passenger, John Howland, fell overboard, but managed to save himself by catching hold of a rope he had been trailing in the water. He lived on to become an influential member of the Plymouth community. Mayflower arrived at what became known as Plymouth Harbour on 16 December, 1620. While they were building their houses, the group continued to live on board ship. Many of them fell ill in the winter, probably from scurvy, due to a continued lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and from pneumonia, due to the wet, damp conditions. Two or three of them died each day until only fifty-two remained, the survivors of the first year. Of the nineteen women who had boarded, only five survived, though one further baby was born shortly after the landing, the first of a new generation on American soil.

After the Separatists settled in New England, many other Puritans followed, as many as twenty thousand of them over the next twenty years. One of Suffolk’s famous Puritan sons was John Winthrop, lord of the manor of Groton and a landowner descended from a long line of Lavenham clothiers, and a practising lawyer. His conscience would not allow him to enjoy the rural peace of his patrimonial estates. In June 1628 he he met with other of like mind in Cambridge and they resolved to get together a party of men and women prepared to follow the example of the ‘Pigrim Fathers’. Winthrop was elected their leader and, less than two years later, he led a fleet of emigrants out of Southampton. They founded Boston in 1630 and Winthrop became the first Governor of the colony of Massachusetts upon its founding. Many of these early settlers were determined to establish a new, purified version of the all-encompassing English state church which would be enforced on all citizens. Winthrop felt an affinity with the kind of international protestant interest that was embodied by the Elector Palatine and Elizabeth Stuart, the deposed ‘winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia. Abandoned by her brother in favour of his Hapsburg alliance, Elizabeth had received a letter from Viscount Dorchester in which he expressed his admiration for …

our godly people, who, weary of this wicked land, are gone (man, woman and child) in great numbers to seek new worlds.

Another friend of hers, Sir Thomas Roe, also wrote to her of his intention to settle in the New World: … if there be an America, I can live. In the 1630s he called for an Anglo-Dutch alliance to invade the Spanish Indies. As Lord Protector, twenty years later, Cromwell mounted this ‘mighty war’ without a Dutch alliance. I return to its implications below, but it is worth noting here that the colonists of the Providence Island venture used slave labour in large quantities between 1629 and 1641, when it came to an end. (On this, Christopher Hill references a 1968 book by W D Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro: Chapel Hill.)

Most Separatists, however, remained true to their vision. Their church in America, as it had been in England, was a voluntary community, a gathering for those who chose to worship together, a place of freedom. The ‘Great Migration’ to New England was certainly underway, coinciding almost exactly with Charles’ period of personal rule. Between 1629 and 1640 about sixty thousand men, women and children made the journey and, far more than in the case of Virginia and the other older colonies whole families wound up their affairs in England and sailed to Massachusetts together. By no means all of them emigrated for religious reasons, but the high proportion who did brave such a vast and perilous change of life for the sake of their faith, and the number of ordained ministers who sailed with them, are eloquent testimony that for a significant sector of the English population, the only religion permitted to them by law had become offensive to their consciences to a degree unprecedented before Charles’ reign. In contrast to the Mayflower emigrants, who were avowed separatists, many who sailed in the 1630s had always regarded themselves as members of the national church, and severed communion with it reluctantly. Many more were considering emigration as the only way of finding religious freedom, including Oliver Cromwell, when the change in Charles’ fortunes gave them fresh hope at home.

Cromwell may have been partly motivated to consider emigration by financial problems, some resulting from the crown’s impositions. In April 1631 he was fined ten pounds for refusing to purchase a knghthood. The ‘impoverished’ James I had debased knighthood by putting it up for to auction, and many gentlemen were reluctant to accept what had once been an honour in exchange for payment. This was one of the many fiscal devices, like Ship Money, which Charles I used to raise revenue in the absence of his annual grant from Parliament. He fined those who refused to pay up, and Cromwell appeared with six others from his neighbourhood appeared before royal commissioners, including the Earl of Manchester, for repeated refusal to pay; he was the last to submit to the fine, though he never paid for a knighthood. The sale of his Huntingdon property may also have been connected with this, and he himself had played an important part in the in Parliamentary elections in the borough, by his own participation in the 1628 Parliament and by his battle against the corporation over its new charter which had imposed a new oligarchy on the town. He had been defeated by the power of the royal government, symbolised for him by Sir Edward Montagu, the Earl of Manchester.

The Montagus had been his family’s great local rivals, buying out their family seat at Hinchingbrooke and succeeding to their political influence in the county. Effectively driven out of Huntingdonshire, Cromwell had continued from the rural obscurity of St Ives to interest himself in the maintenance of Dr Wells as a lecturer, entering for his purpose into correspondence with the London merchants who financed him. He was also related to many of the Virginia Company and Providence Island Company Adventurers, and there are contemporary apocryphal stories that he intended to emigrate to New England himself. It was this colony which from 1630 onwards was regarded as at least a temporary refuge by many religious and political ‘malcontents’. Like his fellow Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire gentry, he opposed Ship Money and favoured, at this point, the Scottish Presbyterian cause.

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It was the emergence of William Laud as controller of ecclesiatical affairs, holding many bishoprics before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, that precipitated the religious and constitutional crisis in England. He was determined to enforce conformity by every possible means – using paid informers, muzzling the press, prosecuting Puritan clergy in the courts. Laud’s treatment of the Puritan propagandist Alexander Leighton in 1630 had already appalled the nation. Convicted in Star Chamber, Leighton was fined ten thousand pounds, and was sentenced to have both nostrils slit, both ears cut off and his face branded, to be whipped, pilloried and then imprisoned for life. Many Suffolk Puritans took fright and, led by Dr Dalton of Woolverstone, planned their flight to America. They sought the advice of the Puritan patriarch, Samuel Ward, town preacher of Ipswich from 1603 to 1635.

Forthright yet wise, Ward was widely respected and his sermons at St Mary le Tower in the very centre of the city attracted large congregations. He was also a familiar figure in Cambridge and London pulpits and had even spent a few days in prison for lampooning Spanish dignitaries. In 1623, the King wrote personally to the Ipswich corporation asking for Ward’s suspension from office, a request that the city fathers declined. In 1633, he told Dalton’s group that there was no dishonour in the younger members fleeing persecution to set up a ‘holy commonwealth’ in the New World, but that those too old for such adventures should remain to resist their tormentors. Six hundred Suffolk men and women sailed from Ipswich and settled in a place in Massachusetts in a place they named after their home town. Two years later, Samuel Ward was finally dismissed from office and imprisoned. At length he fled to Holland, but returned to be buried in the churchyard at St Mary’s. As the years of political and religious crisis continued, the people of Suffolk were ruined by economic distress and royal taxation, no longer able to meet the unremitting demands made by the government. Little wonder, then, that so many of them continued to join their exiled relatives and friends in New England.

The Massachusetts Bay Company was not the only colonising venture with a religious complexion, for Viscount Saye and Sale, of Broughton Castle, near Banbury, and Lord Brooke of Warwick Castle, both strong puritans, founded the ‘Saybrook’ Company for the settlement of Conneticut; while the Providence Island Company, which aimed to establish a puritan colony in the Caribbean, became politically important at home because it kept so many future leaders of the Long Parliament in close touch in the years when the two houses at Westminster stood empty. The establishment of ‘New England’, however, was just one episode in what became a vast colonial enterprise that was not always about freedom and non-violence, indeed far from it. Nevertheless, those of us who value the freedom of religion and thought that exists today, and see it being denied to people in various parts of the world, have good reason to look back with gratitude to those dissidents who paid a steep price for it four hundred years ago. The story of the ‘Pilgrims’ also shows the futility in trying to draw a line between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, between those whose motives for migration are connected with spiritual freedoms and those looking to find material security and wellbeing.

Getty Images, The Graphic News.

The historian Tom Holland has written that Christianity has two deeply subversive ideas at its heart: that all people are equal and that the weak are heroic. Those ideas flow from the ministry of Jesus walking the roads of Galilee teaching, healing, praying until the powers of his day denied his “freedom of religion” as on the cross he laid down his life for his friends, making possible the forgiveness and grace that we can know today. In response to that grace and alongside their vision of a new land, the Pilgrims determined to live out the values of their faith with the creation of a fairer society. While still aboard the ship they drew up the Mayflower Compact to form what they called their “civic body politic”, the arrangements for the sort of community they would become. This agreed to frame just laws as should be most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony int which we promise all due submission and obedience. It fits on a side of A4 and is perhaps their most significant legacy, setting in train an approach which came to influence the American Declaration of Independence and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The author Kate Caffrey describes their achievement in these words:

The system of laws and management set up by the Pilgrims may not seem startlingly democratic today, but it was a great advance on anything seen before then. They made a plantation, and kept it going despite death, disease, terror, storm and tempest on the spot, exploitation and swindling from within and without. They dealt fairly with one another and with all they met. Steadfast endurance in trials, inspiring leadership, dauntless faith sustained them. They created one of the best-ordered and most successful colonies ever known.

Miles Standish with the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit.

The ‘Pilgrims’ were 102 determined people who were founding a community built on hard work and unselfishness. Their first winter was very severe; they relied on the supplies they had brought with them, building cabins. In the Spring, they sowed seeds supplied to them by the local Indians. When the ship returned to England, not one settler returned with it. Their inspirational leader, William Bradford, became Governer, and Captain Myles Standish, a gifted soldier, led the defence of the colony, though the Amerindians were mostly friendly. Despite the noble ideals of the separatists, however, the legacy of the Mayflower makes us confront an uncomfortable truth; that the freedom and aspirations of one group of people can come at a cost to another. The story of the Mayflower lays bare the complexity of human experience. Many subsequent colonisers, though not the original ‘pilgrims’, inflicted death and destruction on the indigenous peoples, taking land, bringing further disease and betraying the trust of those who had offered hospitality to the first arrivals. Their story is told here by Dr Kathryn Gray, Associate Professor in Early American Literature at the University of Plymouth:

When the Mayflower passengers set sail for North America in 1620, they took a patent, a legal document, which gave them authority to settle a parcel of land in North America. These political arrangements took no account of the Indigenous people already living in the region. By 1620, Indigenous coastal communities were aware of European arrivals and interventions: the Dutch were developing trade in the region; and printed accounts of Indigenous men taken captive from the shoreline and forcibly removed to Europe, were circulating in the early decades of the seventeenth century. For the Wampanoag, the tribe closest to the colonists, geographically and, later, diplomatically, the impact of European disease was beginning to take its toll. The place called Patuxet, a village devastated by disease just a few years before the Mayflower arrived, became the chosen site of the Plymouth Colony.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts today, their village has been carefully and authentically rebuilt. There was a great fence or stockade around the village and the saw pit was where the planks for building were cut. Below the village was the Meeting House with a fort above it with three small cannon. The Meeting House would be used every day for Bible readings and prayer meetings, and sermons preached on Sundays.

William Bradford, an early Governor of the colony, commented years later that ‘God cleared a space for us in the wilderness.’ This clearing came at a human cost; the providential errand had visible and unrelenting consequences for Indigenous people.The first settlers of the Plymouth colony relied on the Wampanoag for food, in the first instance; for translation, as they integrated in the region, economically and diplomatically; and for protection, through a Peace Treaty that, at least ostensibly, agreed to mutual protection. The arrival of many more settlers, and the emergence of many more colonial settlements in the New England area in the decades that followed, meant that relatively local conflicts, tensions and violence caused by settlement at Plymouth, soon developed into a crisis across the region. Conflicts called the Pequot War, of the 1630s, and King Philip’s War, of the 1670s, had devastating impacts on Indigenous people.

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia). See also the caption below the image below.

The East Anglians’ first year in the new settlement was very difficult. Most of them had come from towns in England or Holland, and had no idea of how to live in a wilderness. They were not skilled hunters as in England hunting was a sporting activity reserved to the aristocracy. Common people were fined, mutilated or transported to prison colonies for shooting game. Having arrived too late to seed crops, and finding that the seeds they had brought with them would not germinate in the new soil, half the colony died from disease, and might have perished altogether had they not received help and training from the native Wompanoag Indians.

The rock on which the settlers first set foot, Plymouth Rock, lies on the harbour shore near the site of the first houses in Leyden Street, now sheltered by a granite canopy. Above the rock rises the Coles Hill where the Pilgrims buried nearly half their number during that first severe winter. They sowed grain over the graves to conceal their misfortune from the Indians. In 1855, some human bones were discovered and these now have a place of honourabove the granite rock canopy. Burial Hill, formerly a defence work called Fort Hill, contains many graves of the early settlers and their descendents, the earliest stone being dated to 1681. Tablets mark the site of the old fort, which was also a place of worship and a watch tower; there is an obelisk memorial to Governor William Bradford. Pilgrim Hall is a large stone building with many relics of the first settlers. These include a portrait of Edward Winslow, one of the original Mayflower passengers, books, manuscripts, Governor Bradford’s Bible, copies of Eliot’s Bible, and Myles Standish’s sword. In 1889, a national monument was set up with a 13.7 metres’ high pedestal, with figures representing the ‘Pilgrims’ and others representing Morality, Education, Law and Freedom. Marble relief frescoes recall the traditional narrative of the first settlement.

Time to Reflect – Inter-cultural Connections:

The arrival of the Mayflower in North America four hundred years ago is a point of connection, not necessarily a beginning. It connects the religious experiences of the Separatists in England and Leyden, with England’s colonial ambitions in North America, and all of this connects with centuries of Indigenous history and culture that western traditions are only just beginning to understand. Over the centuries, the voices and perspectives of the colonists have dominated the ways in which this past constructs a narrative of national origins. At this moment of reflection, four hundred years later, and thanks to the work of numerous indigenous leaders, scholars, artists and curators, the significance of this point of connection is productively and permanently transformed, revealing the deep and complex entanglements of our shared histories.

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Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of this inter-cultural connection was a linguistic one. It was the English of East Anglia which was first to take hold in Massachusetts, the language of the rigorous Puritan mind. But to understand the momentous nature of the first English voyages to the New World, we have to appreciate the forlorn position of these weary travellers in a strange landscape without a single familiar reference point. We have to imagine a world in which all languages were foreign, all communications difficult, and even hazardous. One of the first surprises for the Plymouth settlers, was the appearance of Indians speaking “broken English”. William Bradford’s ‘History’ reports that:

… about 16th of March (1621), a certain Indian came boldly among them and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand but marvelled at … At length, they understood by discourse with him, that he was not of these parts, but belonged to the eastern parts where some English ships came in to fish, with whom he was acquainted and … amongst whom he had got his language.

In fact, the ‘Indian’ was one of a number of Wampanoag who formed a delegation, led by Massasoit, their military leader, who arrived at the ‘Plymouth’ settlement. Their purpose was to arrange an agreement with the settlers, who would be allowed to stay on Wompanoag territory in exchange for protection against a rival Indian group. Massasoit brought with him an ‘interpreter’ called Tisquantuman, who knew some English from his time in the captivity of pirates. ‘Squanto’, as he became known to the settlers, stayed with them and proved important to their survival. He and other Wampanoag taught the serttlers how to grow corn and showed them other crops that would grow well in the unfamiliar soil. He also taught them how to fish and dig for clams, and how to hunt game in the forests. By the ‘Fall’ of 1621, the settlers had learnt how to harvest bountiful crops of corn, barley, beans and pumpkins. Legend has it that they invited Massasoit to to a feast of ‘thanksgiving’ and that the Chief came with ninety others who brought turkeys and deer to roast. Until recently, school textbooks in the USA presented the legend as one in which the ‘Pilgrims’ cooked the the entire feast, offering it to the ‘less fortunate’ natives. Fortunately, this grotesque distortion and insult has now been removed from the popular narrative. Even among immigrant Americans, at one time, ‘Thanksgiving’ was seen as a relic of Puritan bigotry, but it is now regarded as part of the secular mainstream of American traditions, with a focus on giving thanks for all blessings on a day for family reunion.

In 1988, a Thanksgiving ceremony of a different kind took place at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. More than four thousand people gathered there on Thanksgiving night. Among them were Native Americans representing tribes from all over the country, and descendants of the first immigrants. The ceremony was the first public acknowledgement of the Indians’ role in the first Thanksgiving. Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee nation, spoke the following words:

We celebrate Thanksgiving along with the rest of America, maybe in different ways and for different reasons. Despite everything that’s happened to us since we fed the Pilgrims, we still have our language, our culture, our distinct social system. Even in a nuclear age, we still have a tribal people.

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This early map shows how the settlements grew. The placenames show the influence of East Anglia among the migrants. On the map, we can find Sudbury and Haveril (Suffolk), Plimouth and Weymouth (West Country), Bradford (Yorkshire), Cambridge and Dover.

Merchant trading ships plied their trade along the east coast of America between tiny English settlements like Jamestown, Plymouth and up to Newfoundland. The first Black slaves, who first arrived in the colonies the year before the Mayflower migrants also helped to spread varieties of ‘pidgin English’ among the Indian tribes. Apparently, the settlers possessed a genuine admiration for the Indians’ speech. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, wrote:

I know not a language spoken in Europe, that hath words of more sweetness and greatness, in Accent and Emphasis than theirs.

Penn was a handsome man who had won fame as a soldier and had been a great favourite at Charles II’s Court, but he gave up his sword after becoming a Quaker. When he debated with the Presbyterian divine Richard Baxter at Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, he would have worn a dark cloth jacket and breeches and a short crowned hat, the usual garb of Quaker men. Both Baxter and Penn respected one another, though they did not agree on many points, and both were courageous men who went about their work in contant danger of persecution. Penn eventually migrated to America where he founded the colony of Pennsylvania.

Quite quickly, American English became enriched by what the settlers called, somewhat disparagingly, “wigwam” words, like racoon, acorn, possum, skunk, squash, pow-wow, mugwump (meaning ‘great chief’, which the Massachusetts Bible used to translate ‘duke’ in Genesis xxxvi, 15). A number of metaphoric turns of phrase have obvious origins in Indian languages like fire-water, play possum, smoke the peace pipe, bury the hatchet, put on the warpaint, and go on the warpath.

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Holy Words & New Englishes:

The text of the 1611 ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible owed much to earlier translations, especially that of Tyndale, but also to the scholarship of John Bois in ensuring the faithfulness of the overall text to the original Hebrew and Greek. He was born in 1560 and grew up East Anglia, reading the Hebrew Bible at the age of six, and becoming a classics scholar at St John’s College at fourteen. He passed through the examinations at record speed, and soon became a Fellow of the College. When this expired he was given a rectorship at Boxworth, an isolated hamlet a few miles north of Cambridge, on condition that he married the deceased rector’s daughter. This he did, moving into the Fens, but still rising at four o’clock to ride into Cambridge to teach, even reading a book while on horseback. Bois continued to live quietly in Boxworth, a man with a brilliant scholarly reputation. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, called by James I to discuss matters of religion, Dr John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a definitive translation of the Bible to ameliorate the developing friction between Anglicans and Puritans. The Rex Pacificus gladly assented to the idea of one uniforme translation, though he doubted whether he would see a Bible well translated in English.

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The ‘King James’ Bible (above) was published in the same year as Shakespeare produced his last play, The Tempest, in 1611. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces, but there is one crucial difference between them. While the playwright used more words than ever, inventing new ones as he wrote, the King James Version employed a mere eight thousand words, God’s English for Everyman. The people for whom the new, simplified yet poetic text became a weapon saw themselves as God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. Their heartland was East Anglia, including the birthplaces of John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell.

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Nevertheless, the royal patronage of the ‘Authorised Version’ caused it to be disliked by the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, who tended to continue to use the Genevan Bible, the marginal notes of which, in any case, better suited their Calvinist theology. One of the essentials of the separatist tradition was that the sermon should be followed by discussion. For them, worship was not a matter of passively hearing the Word preached by by a learned minister, but should be followed by participation by the congregation after a gifted member had opened up the discussion. John Robinson, pastor to the Leyden congregation in the Netherlands, wrote in The People’s Plea for the Exercise of Prophesie in 1618 that after public ministry the elders should exhort anyone who had a gift of speaking to the edification of hearers to make use of it. In the radicals’ mode of thought two strands were twisted together. One was the belief in the evolution of truth, continuous revelation. Robinson preached this doctrine in his farewell sermon to the emigrants in 1620, so it is fitting that the belief is often related to the settlement of the New World. In 1634, John Cotton included in the the order of public worship in the church of Boston prophesying by gifted members of of the congregation and discussion of questions addressed to the minister. John Goodwin wrote in 1642 that:

… if so great and considerable a part of the world as America is … was yet unknown to all the world besides for so many generations together: well may it be conceived, not only that some but many truths, yea and those of main concernment and importance, may yet be unknown.

Thomas Goodwin announced that… a new Indies of heavenly treasure … hath been found out! … Yet more … may be. Lord Brooke and the five Dissenting Brethren of the Westminster Assembly had already looked forward to a state of permanent reformation. John Saltmarsh, Walter Cradock and many others saw their own age, of as one of an outpouring of the spirit: they hoped that a thousand flowers would bloom. This was a great argument for religious toleration and liberty of conscience; better many errors of some kind suffered than one useful truth be obstructed or destroyed. Through revelation of new truths to believers, traditional Christianity could be adapted to the needs of a new age; the everlasting gospel within responded more easily and swiftly to the pressures of the environment than did traditions of the church or the literal text. History is a gradual progress towards total revelation of truth, as John Goodwin wrote.

Besides many of these very English radicals, about two-thirds of the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay came from the eastern and ‘home’ counties, from Lincolnshire in the north to Essex and in the south, from Suffolk and Norfolk in the East to Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the west. Throughout the seventeenth century, the villages and towns of these counties supplied the New World with a ready and steady stream of immigrants, country people with country skills who were already well adapted for the hard life of the pioneer. The speech-features of East Anglia that were transplanted to the place the Pilgrim Fathers named New England are still to be heard in the rural parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. People there still say noo instead of new and don’t sound the in words like bar, storm and yard, very different from the burr of western English counties from rural Oxfordshire and Worcestershire down to Dorset and Devon.


New England for Old – ‘Mirror’ Images of Early Colonialism:

In the 1630s the opposition group organised its activity around the Providence Island Company, a trading company of which John Pym was Treasurer and many of Cromwell’s cousins were also members. Providence Island lay just off the mainland of Spanish America, cutting the route for the silver galleons: its occupation would make sense only as part of an anti-Spanish policy like the one which Cromwell himself took up in the 1650s. The Western Design had a long pre-history, going back to Ralegh’s privately financed expeditions which got distracted by piracy. The merchants who sponsored the Pilgrim Fathers and the Massachusetts settlements of the 1630s may have also had long-term anti-Spanish designs; but no government support was forthcoming for their colonising efforts. One of the five Commissioners in charge of Cromwell’s expedition was Edward Winslow, the Pilgrim Father. The Providence Island Committee came as close as private enterprise could get to putting the policy into effect, by planting a colony right in the Spanish Main (see the map at the top). Cromwell’s Manifesto against Spain of 1656, dealt with below, referred specifically to the Providence Island venture.

In the period leading to the outbreak of the Civil Wars, the Providence Island group organised the opposition to Ship Money. The judgement against John Hampden of 1637 shocked the propertied classes. If Ship Money was was legal, then non-parliamentary government had come to stay. The situation was saved by the Scottish War, which made resistance possible and in 1638 sixty-one per cent of Ship Money remained unpaid. The Providence Island Group were in contact with the Scottish Covenanters, and in 1640 co-ordinated their actions with them. The Short Parliament which Charles was compelled to call in April 1640 insisted on peace with the Scots, which was concluded at Ripon in October 1640 on terms which forced the summoning of another Parliament which as ‘the Long Parliament’ was to sit for more than eleven years.

Charles I

During the Civil Wars of the 1640s, the majority of English people remained attached either to the liturgy and government of the pre-Caroline Church of England, or, as puritan separatists or ‘Independents’, to the congregational forms of church which had originated in London and East Anglia, and were then adopted in the Netherlands and transferred to New England. Puritan emigration to New England reached a peak in the 1630s: Oliver Cromwell had thought of going, but was elected to both the Short and Long Parliament to represent the borough of Cambridge, the Puritans’ stronghold. In his attack on the Huntingdon oligarchy, Cromwell made himself the spokesman and organiser of the commoners’ opposition. His own financial position was improving after he inherited property from his maternal grandfather in 1636. Oliver’s heriditary protestantism had been reinforced by his education at a very puritan college, Sidney Sussex in Cambridge, and by his own conversion, and by his reaction against Henrietta Maria’s Catholic circle at Charles’ court, which included members of the Montagu family, the Cromwells’ county rivals. It is therefore unsurprising that when in 1640 Charles finally decided to summon another Parliament, Cromwell was a candidate. He was invited to stand for the borough of Cambridge and the city avenged the loss of his Huntingdon seat. All talk of emigration was long forgotten, though Cromwell maintained his trading links with North America and the Caribbean. His friend of later years, Sir Henry Vane, actually went. But returning New Englanders were then to play a prominent part in the revolutionary movement of the 1640s. Cromwell was said to especially favour them within his regiment.

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Throughout the conflicts, the ‘Independents’ in Parliament and the Army, including Cromwell, rejected the imposition of a Presbyterian Covenant in alliance with the Scots. In 1644, at a crucial juncture in the internal conflict between the ‘political’ Presbyterians and Independents in Parliament, their ‘religious’ counterparts in the Westminster Assembly met to decide the form of government that the Church of England should have. Since episcopalians were not represented in the Assembly, the English divines were willing to endorse the essentials of the Presbyterian system. They were opposed in doing so by a small group of Independents who became known as the ‘Dissenting Brethren’. The five most prominent of them published An Apologetical Narration in order to distinguish their position from those of the Presbyterian on the one hand and the separatists or sectaries on the other. They were all men of learning, trained and ordained, who had gone into exile during the Laudian persecution and had ministered to their fellow exiles in Holland. There they had followed the ‘congregational way’, like their brethren in New England. But they failed in reaching a compromise with the Presbyterians in the Assembly and the episcopalian order was eventually restored in ‘Old England’.

Another ‘mirror’ needs to be held up in respect of Cromwell’s Irish policy, which should be seen as part of his general colonial policy. The native Irish were treated much as the original settlers of New England treated the Amerindians. Cromwell wrote to New England treated to try to persuade ‘godly people and ministers’ to move to Ireland. His own influence as Lord Protector was in the direction of moderating the policy of wholesale transplantation of Irish indentured labourers across the Atlantic. Only landowners were shifted: the mass of the Irish population was required as labourers and payers of rent. Ireland had been included within the scope of the 1651 Navigation Act, so that the same customs and excise were paid as in England. But of course it was the English settlers who benefited, as in New England: the native Irish and ‘papists’ were excluded from corporate towns. Ireland must not be over-taxed, Cromwell said, lest the English must needs run away for pure beggary and the Irish possess the country again.

In 1653, the continuing ‘mirror’ influence of ‘New England’ on the old homeland was again apparent during the interregnum, when the radicals in the ‘Barebones’ Parliament set out to codify all that it found good and just in the existing laws, harmonise these with the law of God, and prescribe propotionable punishments for specific offences. It invoked the example of Massachusetts, where such a written code had been promulgated ten years earlier, but England, with its age-old complexities of tenure and property rights, was not Massachusetts, and so the radical project failed, as did the Parliament, by 1655.

By the end of 1653, English foreign policy was conceived in in hard practical terms of national and commercial interest. Two lines of policy emerged. One, popular with the City of London and the Rump Parliament, aimed at annihilating Dutch mercantile rivalry, either by agreement if possible, by war if not. This would open up to English merchants the trade of India and the Far East. This policy inspired the Navigation Act and the First Dutch War, and completely abandoned religion as as a consideration in determining foreign policy. The alternative course of action, more popular with the Presbyterian gentry, would have been to force a way into the Spanish monopoly trading area between the Gulf of Mexico and the South American coast. It was a continuance of the Providence Island Company’s policy, and if successful would have given England bases in the sugar and tobacco islands of the West Indies and a strong position in the trade in African slaves to America. War against Spain had the added advantage that it could be justified as an anti-Catholic ‘crusade’. The anti-Dutch policy was preferred by the radicals in the Barebones Parliament, but Cromwell also saw it as being in the trading interests of the Commonwealth.

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The Lord Protector, warts and all, circa 1653.

In 1654, the ‘Lord Protector’ equipped and dispatched an expedition to co-operate with the New Englanders in the capture of the Dutch settlements on the mainland of North America. This plan was frustrated by the signing of peace, but the force then carried out Cromwell’s alternative instructions by capturing Nova Scotia. This might have provided a base for a second attempt at the colonisation of Canada, where Charles I had surrendered an earlier settlement in 1629, but Charles II gave Nova Scotia back to the French in 1668. Although in 1656 Cromwell was accused by the Baptist Captain Chillenden in selling English trade to the Dutch, the peace terms of 1654 were not unfavourable to the Commonwealth. Cromwell had told the Dutch Ambassadors in July 1653 that, if they agreed a peace, their two countries could overrule all others and control the markets and dictate the conditions. But he was equally determined, by the end of 1654, to oust the Dutch from the leadership of the protestant interest in Europe and North America. Having largely succeeded in this, he could then turn his attention to Spanish America.

Map of Colonial Jamaica

The ‘Western Design’ was Cromwell’s main contribution to the development of English colonial policy, and it is important to see it in the perspective of the cross-cultural contexts of international setlement. It had nothing in common with the raids of the Elizabethan sea-dogs: Cromwell’s ‘Design’ was a determined attempt to to occupy and settle permanently a stable base in the West Indies. Its commander was told that the design in general is to gain an interest in that part of the West Indies in the possession of the Spaniard. Englishmen would then settle there ‘from other parts’. Cromwell tried hard to persude the New Englanders or Irish protestant settlers to transfer to Jamaica. A simultaneous aim was to achieve ‘the mastery of all those seas’ in order to maintain the Navigation Act and to humble the Netherlands. Dutch ships were seized at Barbados and on the high seas. The ultimate objective was to open up South American trade, seizing Spanish silver fleets in the process, but the most important part of the scheme was government-sponsored settlement. Just as the Commonwealth of Great Britain had been followed by an offer to the Netherlands on similar terms as those between England and Scotland, so the conquest and settlement of Ireland was to be followed by the conquest and settlement of the West Indies. The two were connected by the transportation of Irish, Scots and English to the West Indies; an unsuccessful attempt was also made to get New Englanders to move to Jamaica. Of course, Black Africans did not have the right to decline, and soon thousands were being shipped from West Africa to Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands.

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For the next hundred and fifty years, Jamaica became the centre of the slave trade, first supplying slaves for other West Indian islands, and then for the southern colonies of the American mainland. The eighteenth century prosperity of Bristol (below) and Liverpool was made possible by Jamaica and its trade in slaves: the original sin among the settlement of saints. There was continuity there too, for the colonists of Providence Island had employed Black slave labour in large quantities.

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Eighteenth-century Bristol

In 1652, the regicide Rev Hugh Peter had enthusiastically urged New Englanders to return to their mother country, as he himself had done in 1641. By 1654, however, he thought they should stay where they were, given England’s ‘great uncertainty and changes’. But by March 1658 the uncertainty was over, at least for him. ‘Truly upon all accounts’, he wrote, ‘I think New England best, if clothing and bread may be had.’ He failed to take his own advice, however, and, having remained in London, he was hung, drawn and quartered in October 1660.

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Rev. Hugh Peter

The Meaning and Legacy of the Mayflower Migration:

Many places in England remain connected with the tradition and era of Protestant Dissent, the most atmospheric of which are the old Baptist and Congregationalist chapels and the Quaker meeting-houses. One in particular is especially commemorative of the first English colonists in North America, the one at Jordans in Buckinghamshire (below). It stands amongst orchards close to a barn said to be built from the timbers of the Mayflower. It was built towards the end of the era, in 1688, by William Penn, who lies in the graveyard outside. It is a simple building with transomed leaded windows, the interior singing with silence and peace, towards the end of more than half a century of religious warfare in England.

Governor Bradford and his migrating flock may not have been conscious of themselves as ‘pilgrims’ or ‘forefathers’, but they were conscious of their ‘forebears’, of those who had gone before, the people of Israel journeying to Canaan, the ‘strangers and pilgrims’ desiring a homeland and in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of their faith who had prepared a better country, that is a heavenly one. The Christian journey still requires the courage of heart, independence of mind and piety of spirit of those who embark upon that journey, and who, in doing so, can still draw inspiration from those who set out from Britain’s shores four hundred years ago to become, providentially though unwittingly, the founders of a mighty nation.


Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution. Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Nuala Zahadieh (2001) in The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury Press.

Christopher Hill (1970), God’s Englishman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1975), The World Turned Upside Down. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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1920 U.S. stamp celebrating the Pilgrim Tercentenary

2 thoughts on “Four Hundred Years Ago: The Birth of a ‘New England’ – Trans-Atlantic Separatists & the Language of Dissent.

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